Commentary: Four Years After Irene, Renewal In Waterbury

This past August, we marked the four year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene. Memories of communities besieged by flood waters, houses knocked from their foundations and families forever changed are still fresh for each of us, and for so many other Vermonters.

But just as Vermont rebuilt from the historic 1927 floods, Vermonters have pulled together to build back stronger, smarter and better after Irene. This has required new and creative thinking, and significant collaboration between communities, the State of Vermont and the federal government. Nowhere in Vermont is that story better told than in Waterbury.

On August 29, 2011, the Winooski River jumped its banks and inundated the iconic Waterbury State Office Complex and state psychiatric hospital. When the floodwaters receded, it was clear the office complex and hospital were a total loss.

Even before Irene hit, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helped Vermonters prepare for the storm. The agency helped coordinate first responders across the state during and immediately after the floods. And in the end, it would provide individual assistance to more than 7300 Vermonters who lost property.

But, as communities across Vermont would soon learn, FEMA generally only helps pay to rebuild infrastructure if it is rebuilt in the same place and restored to its pre-flood condition. Ideas like moving the state hospital and power plant out of the flood plain were nonstarters. This made no sense to us, to use taxpayer money to rebuild in a manner likely to fail again in the next flood, rather than building back stronger.

So we crafted legislation and steered it through the Appropriations process and into law to ensure that FEMA could pay for smarter, more resilient projects. We met with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and his leadership team, and urged them to use this new authority in Vermont. And to their credit, they did. FEMA contributed more than $55 million to build a new state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital facility in Berlin, and to build a fantastic new state office complex that will reopen in Waterbury on Monday. In the end, the community of Waterbury, patients at the state hospital, and state workers in both locations are all better off.

Another example of local, state and federal collaboration in Irene’s aftermath is Waterbury’s new municipal building. After Waterbury residents voted to expand the town library and historical society and to relocate the Town offices out of the flood plain, the project used more than $1 million in special Community Development Block Grant disaster funding that we fought hard to include in the federal budget. That federal assistance helped rebuild Waterbury stronger.

Other examples of this collaboration include the Hunger Mountain Children’s Center and the new South Main Apartments, each of which received $1 million in federal disaster assistance. And as a result, Waterbury has new affordable housing and expanded childcare opportunities for working families.

All of these projects took vision from local leaders, Vermonters pulling together, lots of creative thinking, and an effective collaboration among town, state and federal governments to get where we are today. Residents of Waterbury and all Vermonters should be proud of what we have achieved, working together. There is more to do, but if we continue to work together we will always be stronger than before.

Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernie Sanders (I) are Vermont’s U.S. Senators, and Peter Welch (D) represents Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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